TIAN ZHUANGZHUANG, one of China's most gifted young filmmakers, is best known in the West as director of two widely hailed dramas. The first is ``Horse Thief,'' a 1986 masterpiece so innovative that Tian has jokingly called it ``a film for the next century,'' even though its subject - the experiences of a Tibetan outlaw - has roots in ancient traditions of religious and family life.
His other major success is ``The Blue Kite,'' a family saga now in American theaters after acclaimed showings at the Cannes and New York filmfests.
Blending personal and historical concerns with a richly emotional story, ``The Blue Kite'' spans 14 years of Chinese history, seen through the eyes of a son remembering the three marriages of his mother, a widow three times over. In its seamless transitions between private and public events, the film resembles Chen Kaige's popular ``Farewell My Concubine,'' another drama that has found strong international favor with a tale of individual destinies caught in the tide of modern Chinese history.
Tian's own background encompasses much of that history and makes a narrative almost as dramatic as the stories he puts on the screen. His father was the first chief of the Beijing Film Studio, and his mother still runs the Children's Film Studio there. Even though they were active Communists in the 1960s, their teenage son was transported to the countryside for ``reeducation'' during the Cultural Revolution period, a time of social upheaval meant to purge China of outside influences.
Later he served in the People's Liberation Army and started his cinematic career as a production assistant for agricultural films. When the Beijing Film Academy was allowed to reopen after the Cultural Revolution ended, Tian became a member of its first new class. There he worked alongside such fellow students as Chen and Zhang Yimou, becoming part of a group known as the ``Fifth Generation,'' because it represents the fifth distinct wave of filmmakers in modern Chinese cinema.
Members of this group have developed many new approaches to film style and have taken skeptical or downright adversarial positions toward government-approved thought.
As a result, numerous Fifth Generation films - including Zhang's brilliant ``Ju Dou'' and Chen's recent ``Farewell My Concubine,'' among others - have been permanently or temporarily withheld from exhibition by Chinese authorities. Tian has been a particularly outspoken figure, supporting political dissidents and dealing with controversial subjects in his movies.
`THE Blue Kite,'' which has still not been approved for release in China, illustrates this aspect of Tian's career. It takes a critical view of governmentally imposed excesses and abuses, ranging from the persecution of alleged reactionaries in the 1950s to the chaos unleashed by the zealotry of the Cultural Revolution in the `60s. It shows how these problems affected not only the evolution of Chinese society, but also the everyday lives of ordinary people whose goals were practical and personal rather than political and ideological.
Tian was not surprised when his choice of subject in ``The Blue Kite'' caused problems with film officials after the movie's principle photography was completed.
``I suspected that would happen,'' he told me during a recent New York visit. ``Someone reported the film to the government - I don't know who - when the editing was almost finished. I needed to go to Japan to do the [sound] mixing. But the head of the Beijing Film Studio requested to see [what] I was editing, and he didn't feel comfortable with it. So he didn't allow me to go to Japan.'' Eventually, rights to the film were acquired by a European distribution company, however, and the production was completed in accordance with Tian's original plan.
HELP from non-Chinese sources has been important for Tian and many of his Fifth Generation colleagues. ``A lot of investors have come from Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent years,'' he points out. ``They have confidence in directors like us, and they usually just put in the money and don't pay much attention afterward. We can follow our own schedules and ideas and scripts. `The Blue Kite' is an example of this.''
Obstacles can be set in place by the Chinese government, however. ``In the process of making a film,'' Tian notes, ``you write a script and submit it to the Film Bureau, and the Film Bureau submits it to the Radio, TV, and Film Bureau at a higher government level. If they agree with the script, then you can go ahead with shooting the film. If they don't like the script they will make suggestions, and they want you to rewrite. If you don't rewrite, then you don't make the film.''
And if you make the film along lines different from the submitted script, an event not unknown in Chinese cinema?
``There is no `film law' in China,'' says Tian, answering rather indirectly, ``but there are always difficulties and troubles for filmmakers. Any situation can happen. My thinking is, when [difficulties] come I will go ahead and resolve them.''
This philosophical attitude explains his patience and tenacity in getting ``The Blue Kite'' completed, although he does not expect it to be cleared for exhibition in China any time soon.
As a viewer of movies by other directors, Tian is very selective. He would rather see an excellent film many times over - learning how it works by closely observing its story, acting, and technique - than see a number of different films in a short period of time.
His favorite American movies include Francis Ford Coppola's war epic ``Apocalypse Now'' and Martin Scorsese's urban melodrama ``Taxi Driver,'' which he has seen 11 times and calls the best work by the best US director. He also admires Milos Forman's freewheeling ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' watching it three times in a row on one memorable day, using an editing machine that enabled him to study it sequence by sequence.
All these films have moments of violence more explicit and harrowing than anything in ``The Blue Kite,'' which depicts violent events with tact and restraint.
The most important factor in dealing with such material, Tian says, is ``the means - the way you deal with it'' in visual terms. A director of uncommon visual sensitivity, he has many ideas to contribute to the international film community.
He will have increased opportunities to make those contributions if ``The Blue Kite'' finds the widespread American audience it deserves and if the Chinese authorities then recognize the movie's excellence and allow it to circulate in its native country.